Ostensibly, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES is the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, who founds an orphanage at St. Cloud’s Maine, and of his favorite orphan Homer Wells, who follows in his footsteps and eventually becomes a doctor.
But the novel is so much more than that. During the time period of this novel, set between the 1920s and the 1950s, abortion was illegal. Dr. Larch’s formative years as a medical student were marked by various experiences with desperate, pregnant women, and the horrors they had to undergo at the hands of back-street abortionists who didn’t know what they were doing. And so, unofficially, Dr. Larch is an abortionist, providing safe abortions for those women desperate enough to trek all the way to back-of-beyonds Maine because they have heard about the good doctor. Homer Wells, having seen the “products of conception” as they are being thrown away, and horrified at the thought of killing babies, refuses to go along with this part of his training. And this disagreement is one reason why Homer Wells, aged nineteen, finally leaves St. Clouds to go off into the wide wide world with his new chums Candy and Wally.
So there you have it. By the magic of his story-telling skills, John Irving gives us a balanced portrayal of abortion, in all of its agonies and difficulties.
So what are THE CIDER HOUSE RULES? During Homer’s sojourn away from the orphanage he becomes a part of a cider making business, owned by Candy and Wally. It is his responsibility to type up these rules for the apple-pickers who come all the way from South Carolina for the seasonal job. The Cider House Rules becomes a metaphor for rules, your rules, my rules and society’s rules, and how this plays out in the abortion debate.